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Dessie Hughes

Dessie Hughes does not do easy Champion Hurdles. When he rode Monksfield to win the 1979 renewal, he won it in a driving finish from Sea Pigeon, who was so good that he went and won the next two Champion Hurdles. When Hughes trained Hardy Eustace to land his second Champion Hurdle in 2005, Harchibald and Brave Inca and Macs Joy were among the vanquished in what was commonly regarded at the time as one of the strongest Champion Hurdles run in years. Then again, is there such thing as a weak Champion Hurdle?

Tuesday’s race is not one, that’s for sure. Take a brilliant champion, a record-breaking 19-time Grade 1 winner who appears to be as good as ever this year, and pit him against four of the best novices from last season, a Neptune Hurdle winner, a Betfair Hurdle winner, a Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle winner and a record-breaking Triumph Hurdle winner, and get them all to Cheltenham in the prime of their health. It is the race of the week, the most eagerly-anticipated Champion Hurdle in years.

The record-breaking Triumph Hurdle winner is Our Conor, and he is the one who sticks his white-blazed head out over his stable door at Osborne Lodge.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the Triumph Hurdle last year,” says Dessie in his inimitable matter-of-fact, quietly-spoken, straight-up way. “Nobody could. I thought that we would beat Diakali all right, and I knew that he was well, I thought that he had a good chance of winning it. But to do what he did. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. He had the race won at the top of the home straight. Normally you’re not happy until they have gone by the line, but last year you could relax as soon as he straightened up for the final flight. It was a nice feeling. Incredible.”

Our Conor’s beginnings were relatively inauspicious. Unsold as a yearling at Tattersalls (Ireland), ninth on his racecourse debut in a maiden at The Curragh in May 2012, future uncertain. He did win his maiden at Roscommon on his second start, and he followed up by landing a handicap at Naas, but it wasn’t until Hughes put a flight of hurdles in front of him that he turned inside out.

“He’s some horse to jump a hurdle,” said his rider Danny Mullins before he ran in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival two and a half months ago. “Put a hurdle in front of him, and he lights up. Then, as soon as he lands over it, there he is, looking for the next one.”

It is his ability to jump that sets Our Conor apart. It is his enthusiasm for his hurdles that transforms him from just an above-average horse on the flat to a potential superstar over hurdles. You don’t want to tempt fate, but he never makes a mistake, and that is a significant piece of armoury for him to take with him into red-hot battle on Tuesday.

It was unusual, then, that this season started for him on the flat, in the October Handicap at Naas. He just wasn’t ready on time for his intended debut over hurdles at Tipperary in early October, so the Naas race was seen as a good starting point. Turns out, it wasn’t. It was a rough race, Our Conor got struck into and had to spend three weeks recovering standing in his box.

He started again in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas, and didn’t do badly in going down by six lengths to Hurricane Fly. He narrowed that gap to a length and a half in the Irish Champion Hurdle four weeks later. The task facing him now is to close that gap completely, and that is not going to be easy.

In many ways, he is undergoing a Hardy Eustace-style preparation. Hardy Eustace ran five times during the 2003/04 season in the lead up to his first Champion Hurdle, and he was beaten four times. He ran in four races in the lead up to his second Champion Hurdle in 2005, and he was beaten in three of them. The stepping stones to the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham were important, but they weren’t essential. They were just stepping stones.

“Those races come up at the same time every year. You don’t pick them. They are just there, they are the races in which these horses run, so you run in them, and you hope that they will bring your horse on. Our Conor is in great form, but you couldn’t say that he has definitely improved since the Irish Champion Hurdle. It’s very hard to tell, we don’t try them. We won’t know that until he gets to the racecourse. But he is really well.”

He doesn’t know it, but you suspect that he thinks it. And if he doesn’t think it, you know that he hopes it. The Champion Hurdle has been Our Conor’s target since the day that he was led back into the winner’s enclosure after last year’s Triumph Hurdle, possibly even since before then. And that target came into even sharper focus when he was purchased by Barry Connell.

“Barry bought him to try to win the Champion Hurdle,” says Dessie. “Hopefully we’ll have him right now. It was great to win the Triumph Hurdle, but the Champion Hurdle is different. It’s the championship race. You’d get a bigger kick out of winning the Champion Hurdle.”

Ask Dessie to compare Our Conor with the Champion Hurdle winner that he rode and with the Champion Hurdle winner that he trained, and he is unequivocal.

“You couldn’t. He is completely different to Monksfield and Hardy Eustace. Those two were actually quite similar, they were out-and-out stayers. Monksfield found it easier going over two and a half miles at Liverpool than he did going two miles at Cheltenham, and Hardy Eustace was probably the same. But this fellow is different. This fellow is all class. He has gears. I suppose the one thing that they all have is common is their jumping. Our Conor is a super jumper, just like Monksfield and Hardy Eustace were.”

Dessie appreciates these horses, appreciates these days. Not that you wouldn’t anyway, but when you have a health scare, your potential for appreciation can expand dramatically. The trainer recently had an operation to have a tumour removed from near his pancreas. When you have been through something like that, even a Champion Hurdle may not seem to be all that important.

“I’m great now though,” he assures you. “Couldn’t be better.”

Overall, Hughes had a good Cheltenham Festival last year. Our Conor was the only winner, but all his other horses ran well. White Star Line ran a cracker to finish third in the JLT Chase, Lyreen Legend finished second in the RSA Chase, Tofino Boy could have won the National Hunt Chase had he not been left in front from the second last fence.

But the trainer was not despondent. On the contrary he was delighted that they were running well, and Our Conor was the obvious highlight. He has come a long way since 1987, when a fungus got into the yard and stayed for eight years before they could get rid of it.

The supporting cast is not bad either this year. Seefood in the Pertemps Final (“The English handicapper has given him 4lb more than he would have in Ireland, but he is in good form”), Lyreen Legend in the Gold Cup (“He will appreciate the good ground”), Guitar Pete in the Triumph Hurdle (“He’s in good form and he continues to improve”), Lieutenant Colonel in the Neptune Hurdle (“He is bred to stay, he will appreciate the step up in trip”).

But Our Conor was cast in the lead role last year, and Our Conor is the headline act again this year. But different owner this time, different silks, different jockey.

“Danny (Mullins) rode him very well the last day at Punchestown, and he continues to get to know the horse better. It’s nice to have Barry as the owner,” says Dessie. “But it does bring with it added pressure. Especially with Barry very generously promising to donate any prize money that Our Conor earns this year to the Jockeys’ Emergency Fund. But I don’t mind the pressure. I’m used to it.”

The pressure could be off by 3.30pm on Tuesday.

© The Sunday Times, 9th March 2014